For the past two years at our church’s confirmation retreat, I’ve shared a message based on Ephesians 4:14-16 that summarizes the way that I understand Christ to save us from sin by incorporating us into His body. I have often described my dissatisfaction with the popular evangelical account of salvation in which sin is understood solely as an offense against God’s honor which is “paid back” by Jesus’ blood on the cross. The problem with this predominant account is that it allows little recognition of the cross’s role in addressing the spiritual imprisonment sin creates as a powerful social force. In any case, the way I explained to our church’s confirmands the problem that Jesus’ cross resolves was by using the metaphor of a sea of wrath that we can only escape through an island of mercy created by Christ. Continue reading
Sermon for 9/18/2010
Text: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
So I decided to do my first multimedia sermon. The reason why is that the show Survivor illustrates very well how to live the opposite way from how we’re called to live in the body of Christ. In Survivor, the goal is to vote everybody else off the island so that you can win the million dollar prize for yourself. In the body of Christ, the goal is to get as many people as possible to stay on the island to share the prize that is worth more than any dollar amount – communion with God. And yet so often, we live in the body of Christ as though we’re playing Survivor.
Today’s scripture calls us away from our Survivor mentality by instructing us to concern ourselves with the wellbeing of all people, because God wants for everyone to be saved. This statement articulates of what Methodist founder John Wesley called prevenient grace, the fact that God has not only opened a door for humanity to be saved but that He is actively pursuing each and every one of us with His love. In each of our lives from the beginning, God has been using relationships and experiences to draw us closer to Him.
1 Timothy 2 makes the connection between God’s desire for all people to know Him and our responsibility as the body of Christ whom God uses every day in the lives of other people. Christ is the one mediator between God and humanity, but those of us who believe in Him become part of His body and part of His process. God’s prevenient grace doesn’t just happen through meteor showers and private devotional time. When we give our lives to God, we get to be part of how God shares His grace with other people. The question is whether we really do this or not. If God is rooting for everybody to win, then why are we trying to vote each other off the island?
So let’s take a look at Survivor. It’s a game that requires being a master manipulator. You want to present yourself to be as agreeable and funny and laid back as possible while all the time plotting about how to make other people look bad so they’ll get voted off. The strategies vary. [Video clips of survivor contestants introducing themselves]. Matthew presents himself as self-confident and charming, Na Onka calls herself a chameleon ready to change her personality at the drop of a hat, Alina wants to get people to trust her so she can use their secrets against them, and Jimmy Johnson is trying to use reverse psychology by talking about how much people hate him.
The first person voted off this season was a woman named Wendy. She was the least hip of all the characters. The incident that seemed to turn her tribe against her was when she made the mistake of taking hygiene too seriously. Wendy is like those people who pull out the Book of Discipline during church meetings, who insist on praying before everything that they do, who want the praise songs to be based on the Bible and the sermons too. I have a word for it when my wife Cheryl acts that way. I tell her she’s being a Girl Scout.
I feel a lot of solidarity with Wendy because of her goofiness. She was probably one of those kids who got straight A’s in school but couldn’t master the subtleties of getting people to laugh at her jokes. I know what that’s like. I tend to sympathize with the nerds because I got picked on as a kid. But God gave me those experiences as part of His prevenient grace in my life. He made me the kid who didn’t fit in to shape me into a pastor who would spend my life seeking out people who don’t fit in and sharing God’s love with them.
While the world tends to have little patience for people like Wendy, the church is supposed to be a place where we put extra emphasis on making sure that people like Wendy feel welcomed, affirmed, and empowered. The Bible says in many places that if we’re not doing that, if we’re just playing Survivor: Jesus Edition, then we’re mocking God when we sing about how much we love Him.
At the same time, 1 Timothy 2 doesn’t just say that God wants the loners and outsiders to be saved; He desires everyone to be saved. God has a place in His kingdom for the jocks and preps who made my life miserable in middle school. Just because I hate the Dallas Cowboys doesn’t mean I get to vote Jimmy Johnson off God’s island. Just because that contestant Matthew is cocky, successful, good-looking, and rich, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love him too.
So what would we do if the Survivor characters we just met on the screen walked through the doors of our church? How does the knowledge that God wants everybody to be saved shape our actions and how we receive other people? God doesn’t just want agreeable people to be saved. God wants for us to welcome the people who are the hardest to get along with, whether it’s because they think too highly of themselves, because they talk too much, because they’re sticklers for details, or because they’re clingy and emotionally needy. In fact, sometimes God puts high maintenance people in our lives in order to save us. Because the messier our lives get from dealing with other peoples’ drama, the more we have to ask for help and the more we are liberated from the delusion that we don’t need Jesus.
Now I know we have to be careful about our boundaries with needy people. We can run ourselves ragged by being way too available for others. We can get stuck in codependency when we try to substitute our need for Jesus with a need for other people to need us. But too often in today’s churches, we err in the opposite direction. Church becomes Survivor, and we look around for people to vote off the island. It makes sense that we do this, because churches are filled with people who are opinionated and passionate about their beliefs but hate open conflict with others.
So we form alliances just like they do on Survivor. For those of you who are unfamiliar, characters on Survivor make secret pacts with one another to gang up on other characters they perceive as good targets to vote off the island. The sin that is more prevalent in church than any other is gossip. If somebody on a particular committee or in a particular ministry with us is getting on our nerves, we go and find an ally to whom we can “vent” our frustrations or “seek advice” about how to handle our conflict, and this can easily turn into a full-blown character assassination.
Now this is tricky because I don’t think that it’s possible in a community like a church to avoid talking about other people behind their backs. We have goals we’re trying to accomplish which require collaboration, prayer, and asking for advice when we run into obstacles. Actually, 1 Timothy 2 commands us to talk about other people behind their backs, but by making “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings,” not by attacking them.
So here’s the key distinction: we’re not just called to think about what’s good for the organization and vote people off the island who seem to create problems for other people. If we pursued that line of thinking to its logical conclusion, we would end up with an empty sanctuary. God’s purpose is that everyone should be saved, which doesn’t mean just making a profession of faith and having some water sprinkled on our heads, but actually discovering the gifts we were created with and finding the place in the body of Christ where we fit.
So when we’re dealing with people who talk too much or seem too fragile or have an anger management problem, what we should be thinking about is not how we can rally other people to vote them off the island but how God is working in their lives and how we can honor God’s goal of bringing them to full salvation and a perfect integration into the body of Christ.
And consider this too: we might be the problem! We’ve probably got some things about ourselves that make us difficult to get along with. When the Bible says God wants everybody to be saved, it doesn’t mean that God wants everybody to be converted to my opinion. If I’m just trying to manipulate people into agreeing with me, it doesn’t matter how nice, agreeable, and soft-spoken I am, I’m not building the body of Christ; I’m playing Survivor.
Rather than worrying about who’s the problem, what we need to do is to approach every conversation with every person who walks into this community with the goal that they would know how much God loves them and how valuable they are to the body of Christ. The more that we do that, the more we learn that it is a gift to have the privilege of sharing God’s love with other people.
So let us remember the many ways in which God has intervened in our lives to draw us onto this island that is communion with Him. That’s what prevenient grace is. God’s been walking with us for a long time, just like we talked last week about Jesus walking with Cleopas to Emmaus. But the best part of prevenient grace is this: when we let God make us into vessels of His love, we get to be part of how God flows into the lives of other people. And the island gets bigger and bigger.